Monday, October 3, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Context of Romans 9-11 (Part 4 of 4)

Paul’s Conclusion

          In the end, Paul reaches an astounding conclusion, what he calls a “mystery”, that is, the unveiling of God’s long range plan concerning Jews and Gentiles. This plan should take the wind out of any tendency for arrogance, especially on the part of Gentile Christians who might be tempted to dismiss Jewish Christians out of hand (11:25a). True, most Jews had rejected the messiahship of Jesus, and their unbelief had been judged by God who hardened their hearts. Still, it was only a part of the Jewish community that was so hardened. Other Jews had accepted Christ and belonged to the believing remnant. This hardening of unbelieving Jews was God’s way of making it possible for the Gentiles—at least all those who would believe (i.e., the full number)—to come into God’s family (11:25b). It was precisely through this hardening of unbelieving Jews and the consequent opening of the gospel to non-Jews that “all Israel will be saved.” The opening words of 11:26 “and so” mean that the statement “all Israel will be saved” is critically dependent upon everything he has just said. “All Israel” describes the same thing Paul has said earlier in his letter, when he spoke of Abraham being the father of “all who believe but have not been circumcised” as well as the father of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised” (cf. 4:11-12). “All Israel”, then, means all God’s children of faith, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. The true Israel, the true remnant, the true seed of Abraham, and the true chosen people of God must be defined by faith in Jesus Christ. No other definition is possible. Even to those directly descended from the patriarchs, Paul assertion is: Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel (cf. 9:6)! But all who believe in Jesus Christ, Jew or non-Jew, are now included in God’s people. This is the true Israel, or as Paul puts it, this is “all Israel.” This hope of salvation is what had been promised long ago in Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9.

          In the end, the Jewish community at large might seem to be the enemy of Christians, and indeed, proved so to be in much of Paul’s missionary work (11:28a). Nonetheless, the people of Israel had been chosen for service as the descendents of the patriarchs, and this calling for service had not ended. In spite of their rejection of Jesus as the messiah, they still were serving God’s larger purpose, and God still extended to them his love (11:28)! Paul’s use of the term “election” as applicable to the unbelieving community of Israel should put to rest entirely the notion that Israel’s election was to be defined strictly in terms of salvation as opposed to damnation. Rather, Israel was chosen by God to serve his divine and mysterious purpose. His calling to Israel in this strange role had not been rescinded (11:29)! The exchange was equal. The non-Jews, once in defiant rebellion against God, had now received the merciful call to become part of God’s family (11:30). The Jews, even though in general rejection of the claims of Christ Jesus, could also receive God’s merciful grace as they see his blessing upon Gentile Christians (11:31). All humans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have been “bound over” or “shut up” in the jail of disobedience (cf. 3:9, 23), and to all, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, is proclaimed the gospel of God’s grace and mercy (11:32)!


  1. Daniel, you have done so well in Romans 11 up to this point. But now you have gone astray.

    Romans 11 addresses two questions and two questions only: Did God reject his people (ethnic Israel) and is ethnic Israel's fall "beyond recovery?" (Romans 11:1 & 11) To both questions, God answers an emphatic "No!"

    Paul never calls the Gentiles "Israel "in Romans 11. The "remnant theology" of this chapter always refers to a remnant inside Israel that has not fallen - that has not stumbled over the "stumbling block" of Jesus' messiahship. Paul describes himself as a Jew and an example of this faithful remnant (Romans 11:1).

    Concerning the Gentiles, Paul offers a strange argument about the role of God's acceptance of the Gentiles in the ultimate salvation of ethnic Israel and a wonderfully descriptive metaphor of broken and grafted branches - which comments on the Gentiles, but explicitly describes the situation of ethnic Israel.

    First, Paul argues that the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people and plan of God will bring provoke Israel to "jealousy" and a return to God. [I honestly have no idea what this means, but it does not appear to be the strongest argument Paul makes in the Romans letter.]

    Second, Paul describes ethnic Israel - the people of God - as a tree with healthy roots, but plagued by branches that are broken off by Israel's disobedience and unbelief. Extending the metaphor, Paul envisions the Gentile Christ-believers as "wild branches" - not native to the root of the tree - which have been grafted into this root. He also predicts that the Jews - the "natural branches" now broken off - will be re-grafted into the tree of God's people.

    The meaning of the metaphor is clear. God does not have two dispensations - one for the Jews and the other for the Gentiles. Rather, there is only one root - God's people, ethnic Israel, the heirs of the Patriarchs and the promise. But God's intention was always - and herein lies the mystery - to include (graft in) the Gentiles into the history of saving acts He provides for his "natural" people, ethnic Israel. The fact that some in Israel have rejected God's final work in Jesus Christ is a tragic occurrence. These natural branches had been violently broken away - and this was never God's intended purpose.

    But the metaphor reaches its climax with the good news that Israel (the natural branches) will be re-grafted into the root of their historic faith. Paul concludes his argument with a startling prophecy that "All Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26).


    There is nothing in Romans 11 to associate the word "Israel" in this startling statement with anyone other than ethnic Israel - those natural branches who are once again grafted into the root of God's saving history.

    Romans 11:25 - the immediate context of the prophecy of all Israel's salvation in verse 26 - draws a sharp distinction between Israel and the Gentiles - obviously ethnic Israel and the nations. In the same breath - using the preposition "so" which indicates a continuation of the preceding thought that draws out its implications, Paul announces that all Israel - clearly ethnic Israel - will be saved.

    How and when this salvation will come, I do not know. But I cannot spiritualize the meaning of "Israel" in Romans 11:26 - or construe it to mean anything other than ethnic Israel - the topic of the two questions addressed in Romans 11 and the clear focus of the answers Paul provides.

  2. Thanks, Joe, for your valuable input on all levels. One thing I like about these postings is that it affords opportunity for peer review from people whose opinions I respect! My posting on Romans 9-11 was, as I titled it, “Some thoughts…”, which is not quite the same as “Conclusions…” This is an opportunity to “think out loud in writing”. I may well be astray in my understanding of Paul’s language of “all Israel” in Ro. 11:26, and if so, it wouldn’t be the first time and surely not the last. At the same time, let me present a backstage view of my thinking.
    In the first place, I think I am on the same page with you regarding most of what you wrote. I quite agree that Paul’s usual use of the term “Israel” is ethnic, and any attempts to see references otherwise requires something contextual to validate it. I agree that God does not have two dispensations, one for the Jews and the other for the Gentiles (indeed, this is THE great error of dispensationalism, among others). I agree that the path of Gentile missions followed the Diaspora throughout Asia, Greece and Italy, and that non-Jews coming into the Christian faith saw themselves as the fulfillment of the ancient prophetic promise to the nations. I agree that the challenge of reading Romans 9-11, and especially 11:26, is the possibility that Paul uses a multi-layered approach to the term Israel, sometimes ethnic and sometimes religious-spiritual, and that one must decode Paul’s complex usage of the term. Here, of course, is the rub. Occasionally, Paul uses the term “Israel” with a special inductive capacity, such as, when he speaks in the following ways:
    • “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Ro. 9:6)
    • “Consider Israel ‘according to the flesh’” (1 Co. 10:18)
    • “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God” (Ga. 6:16)
    • “…once you were excluded from citizenship in Israel…but now in Christ you have been brought near; for he himself is our peace, who has made the two one…” (Ep. 2:12-14)
    • And, of course, the passage we are discussing in Romans 11:26, where after speaking of the hardening of Israel and the fullness of the Gentiles he then says, “And so (kai houtos) all Israel will be saved”.
    These intriguing phrases beg certain questions: does an impeccable pedigree equal being Israelite? If there is an Israel “according to the flesh”, what is the counterpart? Is it an Israel “according to the Spirit”, and if so, what does this mean? Is the “Israel of God” a statement made to a largely Gentile community or an oblique reference to the Christian Jewish community (and here, much depends upon how one takes the conjunction kai, whether disjunctive or inclusive). If “the two” (Israel and the Gentiles) are now “one” in Christ, what is this “one new man” to be called? Could it be called “Israel”? And finally, why in Ro. 11:26 does Paul preface the word Israel with pas, i.e., why not just say “Israel”? By saying “all Israel”, does he mean that all ethnic Jews will be saved, whether believing or not? Or is he hinting at some broader inclusion in this multi-layered term “Israel”, an inclusion that embraces Gentile believers?

  3. Incidentally, I freely concede that Paul at no time says anything so specific as “the Gentiles are Israel,” but he does say that those Gentiles who walk in the faith of Abraham have Abraham as their spiritual father (Ro. 4:11-12, 16). In my “thoughts out loud”, I am not at all espousing some sort of replacement theory, far less some abstraction of dispensational thought. Rather, I am exploring the idea of how Israel and the nations become “one” in Christ in what Paul calls this inscrutable “mystery”, “hidden for long ages past but now revealed and made known…so that all nations might believe and obey him.”

  4. Dan: As usual, you are correct. We both use this forum to "think out loud" and engage - perhaps even provoke - one another to clearer thinking. I sometimes "think out loud" with a little less reserve and a little more vehemence than you do. This, of course, is to your credit and often to my detriment.

    As most often happens, our positions which seem far apart at first glance are in fact much closer than they first appear.

    Paul, when proclaiming the unveiling of the great endtime mystery of Jews and Gentiles together in one body (one building, one loaf), seems incapable of admitting the sociological impracticality - and historic improbability - of realizing this unity in any real social sense. To say this a different way, Paul was actually crazy enough to believe the things he said and the things he believed that God was doing now at the end of time.

    Second temple Judaism rested on the existence of a temple. As long as the temple stood, the earliest Christ-believers - the church in Jerusalem consisting of Palestinian and diaspora Jews drawn to Jerusalem - joined their fellow Jews and continued to recognize the centrality of the temple and to partake in its ceremonies, sacrifices, and holy days (at least this seems to be the case - although not always explicitly stated - in the book of Acts).

    While I date the "parting of the ways" between Jews and Christians much later than some - certainly to the second and maybe not fully to the third or fourth centuries CE - the ways necessarily began to part with the destruction of the Jewish temple. It was this event that forced Judaism - moving from its second temple to rabbinic period - to redefine itself. Clearly such a redefinition of Jewish faith around Torah alone may have been well underway by the time of the destruction of the temple by the Roman armies in response to Palestinian Jewish rebellion, but this re-visioning could only be completely triumphant in the absence of the temple.

    The post-temple Jewish self-redefinition ultimately excluded any fringe thinking that might challenge the "new middle." This - as well as numerous social and political changes brought on by the Christian missionary success and the powerful witness of the Christian martyrs - hastened the "parting of the ways."

    But for a brief moment after the astonishing events of Christ's crucifixion and the clear dawning of the "new age" in his resurrection, Paul held on to the utopian notion of Jews "living as Jews" and Gentiles "living as Gentiles" - but assembling, worshiping together, and sharing a common life in a single new unified whole.

    James and the Jerusalem Christians - who had no problem with Paul's outreach to the Gentiles and shared with Paul the conviction that the endtime ingathering of the Gentiles had already begun - nevertheless held to a much more realistic understanding of how Jewish Christians "living as Jews" and Gentile Christians "living as Gentiles" would prove problematic, if not impossible.

    But you can't help but love Paul's optimism - however impractical or improbable.